Category Archives: Tribe

Taking Refuge, Making Justice

Iyyun Tefilah, Judea Reform Congregation, February 16, 2018…

Seven days a week, Jews pray the hashkiveynu prayer as evening falls: “Grant, O God that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed; spread over us the shelter of Your peace.”

Many of us learned this prayer in Hebrew School from teachers who said something along the lines of, “Imagine what it must have felt like hundreds of years ago, when this prayer was written. There were no light switches. Nighttime was so dark and scary. The fear our ancestors felt, and the need to find a sense of safety amidst that fear, is why this prayer was composed.”

I wonder if we aren’t doing ourselves a disservice by emphasizing the prayer’s roots in an earlier, scarier time. Because let’s face it: If hashkiveynu weren’t already a prayer, would our generation not need to invent it? It may not be as hard to see in the dark as it once was, but the darkness is no easier to look upon. “Defend us against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow,” our ancestors prayed. Is this not our hope, our prayer, too, we who can’t look at a screen or open a newspaper without being confronted with all those things in abundance? “Shield and shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings,” they prayed. Is refuge not among our deepest desires, as well? Continue reading

One Person, One Heart – JDAIM 2018

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a time to shine a light on a topic that receives too little attention, given its importance. It’s not overstating the case to claim that the way a community welcomes and includes people with disabilities goes to directly to its character, to its soul. My evidence to back this claim: this week’s parashah, yitro. Continue reading

Od Avinu Chai

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in an interview granted around the time of his 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, said this about why he wrote in Yiddish, a language with an ever-shrinking pool of speakers and readers: “The language is ailing, yes. But in Jewish history, the distance between sickness and death can be a long, long time.”

So there’s dying, and then there’s dead. And on the flip side, there’s living, and there’s alive. This week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, includes a curious exchange between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 43:27-28) which viewed through the lens of our Tradition, illuminates this point. Hearing the words this year, I find myself reflecting on the question, “In what ways am I merely living, and in what ways am I truly alive? Continue reading

Sharing the privilege of leadership and service

Opening remarks, Interfaith Inclusion Day of Listening, November 5, 2017.

I’ll begin with a few words about process, and rabbinical authority. I’m proud of the way our congregation is carefully and prayerfully considering the ways in which our members who aren’t Jewish might take part in the life of the synagogue. I wish it to be absolutely clear that the authority to make changes in the realm of governance, in particular, rests with the membership. This is not a question that can be settled by deferring to the rabbi’s wishes, and even if it were, I wouldn’t want the authority or the weight of responsibility. That’s a weight which is best borne by many shoulders.

On Yom Kippur I studiously avoided sharing my own feelings on the topic at hand. My goal that day wasn’t to advocate for a particular outcome, but instead to suggest what we might bring to the conversations that would follow: imagination, empathy, and the capacity to see things through another’s eyes. I reiterate that call now, encouraging each of us to approach the conversation with all the humanity within us.

But today I’ll do what I didn’t do on Yom Kippur: share my own thinking on the topic. Because if being the rabbi doesn’t come with unilateral authority (thank God!), it does come with some expertise and with a megaphone, and I would be shirking my responsibility if I were coy about my own feelings on the subject.

An analogy to another moment in my rabbinate will help me to explain my thinking. In 2007, after nearly a decade of saying “no” when asked to officiate at weddings where only one partner was Jewish, I began to say “yes.” As I said it then, in a letter to my congregation, my nine years in congregational life had led me to

[t]he recognition that marriages between Jews and non-Jewish partners are often imbued with an appreciation of Judaism (even a love of Judaism) and with the desire to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families.  Where that is the case…I find myself comfortable – eager, even – to join those couples under the hupah and to invite God’s blessing upon their marriage.

Ten years later, it is the same recognition that leads me to believe that we would do well to welcome into certain leadership roles our members who aren’t themselves Jewish in the conventional understanding of the term, but who appreciate and even love Judaism, and who are helping to create Jewish homes and raise Jewish families. And now, as then, I find myself not only comfortable, but eager, to welcome them — to welcome you — to the table.

My reasoning is both practical and principled.

Practically speaking, I see a generation coming of age for whom identity is fluid and fungible. Gender and race are increasingly recognized not as immutable and defining traits, but as social constructs which people perform. In this context, a strict Jewish/non-Jewish binary is increasingly out of place, and to some even offensive. It seems to me that maintaining the status quo would be out of character for a synagogue that takes future visioning as seriously as we do. Practically speaking, some adjustment to the current practice sets us up to thrive as notions of identity continue to evolve in the coming years.

But this is not only about forecasting future trends, and setting ourselves up for organizational health. Ever since Abraham, when forced to choose, Jews have aspired to do what’s right, not what’s expedient. Demographic trends aside, it just feels right to me to open the door to leadership, at some level, to our members who are not Jewish by the conventional definition, but who are essentially living Jewish lives. We are a synagogue whose calling card is inclusion. As such, I believe that all of our members who appreciate and even love Judaism, who are creating Jewish homes and Jewish families, ought to be welcomed to lead and serve in some capacity. That ought to be the litmus test. I believe that we will be richer for it.

Having said all of that, I conclude by returning to process, with a reminder that the power to set our course in this regard rests not with me but with you. I trust in your collective wisdom. Whatever the particulars that emerge from today’s conversation and the ones that will follow, my prayer is that Judea Reform Congregation will remain healthy and strong, a blessing to this community, to the Jewish People, and to all beings, everywhere.

“A Name for Ourselves”

Judea Reform Congregation, Parashat Noach

Four miles to the east of where we learn and pray tonight, in the Hayti neighborhood, sits a field littered with the concrete slabs of a public housing project. From 1967 until 2007 Fayette Place stood, before it was bought by developers, razed to the ground, and then left waiting for market conditions that never arrived.

Here and there, a few steps survived the wrecking ball. My colleague, Rev. William Lucas has called them, poetically and tragically, “the steps to nowhere.” That image came to mind this week as I studied parashat noach, and specifically the eleventh chapter of Genesis, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel. I imagine the great ziggurats, Mesopotamian fortress-temples which inspired the story of the tower, after they’d crumbled but before they’d been completely dismantled or covered over by the sands of time. It must have been something, to see those ruins, those steps to nowhere. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: the power to imagine

I was up before dawn today. Sitting in my living room, I watched the yahrzeit candle burn. For a few minutes I thought about the people whose lives are conjured up whenever I light one. They are the same people whose names I will review this afternoon at yizkor, and each name will stir up memories. What would they make of all of this? What would they think about my being a rabbi? What would they think about my being a reform rabbi? What would they make of my life, my family, of this world?

The same candle points me in the other direction, too. Who will remember me? How will I be remembered? Will yahrzeit candles still burn in Jewish homes on Yom Kippur, and in synagogues? What will the people who kindle the flame be thinking as they look back? Pre-dawn thoughts in my living room on this day of kapparah and teshuvah, healing and homecoming. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: Love, Truth, Justice, and Peace

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru amen…

Did you catch that little change in the text? In our new prayer book, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, “all who dwell on earth,” joins aleinu v’al kol yisra’el, “us, [and] all Israel,” in the prayer for peace. Many Reform Jews have been adding that phrase for some time, editing the written words before them on the fly. With our new machzor, the printed page has at last caught up with what is increasingly our theology, and our practice.

The rationale is well-stated in the note at the bottom of the page: “What threatens our world today is…the burning question of the extent to which individuals throughout the world choose particularistic allegiance to their tribe alone rather than universalistic responsibility to the rest of humankind.” In the face of that threat, how can we let particularistic allegiance have the last, indeed the only, word as we pray for peace? We simply cannot, and I am grateful for this innovation in our prayer book.

Hayom Harat Olam, we say of this day: “today the world is born anew.” Among the many things that Rosh Hashanah is, it is understood by our tradition to be the anniversary of the world’s coming into being. Five thousand, seven hundred seventy-eight years ago today – so the Rabbis say – a six-day period of creativity culminated with the fashioning of humanity, pinnacle of God’s Creation. In splendid solitude, God spoke this world into being, took stock, pronounced it good, and then rested. It’s quite a story! Continue reading

When Pride and Yom Kippur Collide

The unfortunate coincidence of NC Pride and Yom Kippur has elicited many reactions. Here’s mine…

I know you’ve received a good deal of communication already regarding the scheduling conflict that will keep the Jewish community from taking part in NC Pride this year. I’m writing to share my own sense of disappointment, and that of many within Judea Reform Congregation, at being excluded due to this conflict. As a religious community with longstanding and deeply-held commitments to LGBTQ justice, taking part in the parade is a chance to take the values we preach and teach out into the world.

For many years my synagogue did not take part in the parade due to the conflict with our sabbath. In 2015, we changed the policy that kept us from taking part in social justice events on Saturdays. We’ve participated as a synagogue for the past two years, and were looking forward to doing so again this year. Months ago we blocked off September 23 on our planning calendars (we’d assumed it was going to be held on the fourth Saturday, and failed to consider that it might be scheduled for the last), so that nothing we planned would conflict with Pride. You can imagine our surprise our surprise and disappointment when the date was published on the website.

As you know, and have acknowledged, this scheduling conflict is painful to Queer Jews and their allies. As an often-marginalized minority community in the South, most Jews are used to schedules being made by the dominant culture with scant concern for our participation. It’s doubly painful that the latest oversight came from the LGBTQ community, also so frequently marginalized. Adding to the pain is the particular moment in which this oversight occurred, a time of rising bias against the LGBTQ community and the Jewish community alike. Recent events have led to even more tension between the two communities (the Chicago Dyke March being the most obvious example).

I hasten to add that I assume no ill-will on your part, or anyone’s at NC Pride; I only mention all of this to provide some context for what I know has been an avalanche of reaction, much of it very emotional.

From all that I’ve heard, there is no way for a change to be made to this year’s schedule. I am hoping against hope for a miracle. Failing that, I hope that you’ll make a note to avoid September 30, 2028 (Yom Kippur), and September 30, 2030 (Rosh Hashanah), so that we can all stand together, in unity and with pride.

Rabbi Larry Bach

Judea Reform Congregation Annual Meeting, Rabbi’s Report

In last year’s report, I devoted a fair amount of space to a catalog of the changes our synagogue had experienced in the previous few years, and concluded with the hope we would all settle in for a while. I am pleased that my hope has largely come to pass, and I begin my report with a word of gratitude for our entire professional staff. Jennifer, Ray, Rabbi Brian, Aviv, Lois, Lisa, Loni, Nikki, Heidi, Anthony and Gene all serve this community with devotion. We are better for their presence and their gifts. Continue reading

Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it. Continue reading